The Magazine

Wild, Wonderful

Finding happiness two hours west of Washington.

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By RONALD RADOSH
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Shepherdstown, West Virginia

What is a quintessential third-generation New York Jewish intellectual--me--doing moving to a house located between Shepherdstown and Martinsburg, West Virginia?

When I left 93rd Street and Broadway in 1992 for the Maryland suburbs of Washington, my New York friends thought my wife and I were mad. One does not simply discard one's roots and leave the Big Apple; it is just not done! Now, my Washington friends are shocked ("You're going where?"). How could we leave the center of the nation's political life for an area way past the boondocks, far beyond commuting distance?

Actually, as we've learned, hundreds of people commute from here daily to Washington: The towns are on the MARC line. Truthfully, if I had to be in the District every day, I would find it difficult. The last train leaves at
8 A.M. and gets in at 10. Most people get up at 6 and catch the 7 o'clock. But my wife and I are now writing books full time. We benefited from the real estate appreciation of the past few years and, not having a child at home needing good schools, we can live anywhere. Shepherdstown is close enough to come into Washington and visit friends and attend events (slightly over an hour's drive).

The only serious problem I have is getting used to reading the daily papers online--unless I want to make the drive each day into town to buy them. There's no market for delivery of the major national papers out here, only the Martinsburg Journal. Thank God (or Al Gore) for the Internet and broadband; without it, I would have had to stay put.

We love our new home and area. And we knew the area had a lot that attracts us. The mountain air is fresh and the views are breathtaking. Our home is adjacent to a golf course; if I actually played golf, I'd be in heaven. But the area is rich in cultural life. As the brochure for the popular Contemporary American Theater Festival held each July puts it, the plays take place in "hip, historic Shepherdstown." As I write, we are planning an evening drive to town for the Chinese film Balzac and the Little Seamstress, one of the movies showing at the East-West Film Festival held at the circa 1800s Opera House sponsored by the Shepherdstown Film Society. How many small towns--this one being the oldest town in West Virginia--have their own film society?

Then there is the music. As a lover of old-time bluegrass and traditional folk music, and as a very amateur guitar and banjo picker, I knew that I was settling in the heart of music country. If I wanted to, I could go and listen and play almost every night. Tuesday is the regular open mike night at the Mecklenburg Inn, once an inn and guest house dating from 1796. Performers start at 8 P.M. and the music goes on till past midnight, or when the bartender decides to close up. On Wednesday there's the old-time and bluegrass jam session, where talented fiddle, mandolin, washtub bass players, and banjo and guitar pickers come and play. And when I get my courage up, I join them.

On Thursday, the action passes to O'Hurley's General Store--a place that looks like what an old general store must have been like, and sells a grab-bag of items from toys to clothing to CDs. One side was built by its owner to house the free Thursday-night performances from area musicians, and the folding chairs and couches quickly fill up as people come to listen to skilled semiprofessionals perform traditional Irish music and some bluegrass and folk.

There are scores of local festivals. Memorial Day weekend hosts the Martinsburg Wine and Arts Festival with top-notch bluegrass and folk performers and crafts and wine tastings from local vineyards. In June and September are the Mountain Heritage Arts and Crafts Festivals in nearby Harpers Ferry.

The center of town is an original building that is still part of Shepherd College, now University. The institution is home to the Byrd Center for Legislative History, run by a former historian of Congress, Ray Smock, now one of my neighbors. The college also runs discussions and forums. Recently the Men's Club (yes, there also is a Women's Club, and the new president of the Men's Club is actually a woman) held a forum on China and American foreign policy, led by a professor of Asian studies.

Ah, but what about good restaurants? Okay, I have to admit it, the Chinese food isn't as good as it is in the Washington area. But the cuisine at Shepherdstown's Yellow Brick Bank Restaurant is as good as anything I've had in the finest food emporiums in the nation's capital. And the Thai-Japanese place on West German Street (the main street) stands up to the best of them. My guests can stay at the four-diamond Bavarian Inn, where they eat continental and German cuisine and room in luxurious accommodations. No wonder one friend told me, "Oh, you're in Yuppie West Virginia."